From content designer to product manager

It’s been just over half a year since I moved from content design into product management.

Since I left my last content role on the GOV.UK Design System, I’ve spent 5 months product managing the design system at Babylon Health, and a couple of weeks ago I started a new role as product owner for the design system at BT.

Here I’ll share what I’ve learned from the transition: the good, the bad and the ugly.

One change of many

A quick disclaimer: it would be remiss of me to write this article without acknowledging the considerable number of other factors that have affected my experience of this transition.

Since moving roles:

  • the coronavirus pandemic means I’ve worked at home for most of this time period
  • I’ve had some health problems which meant terminating my contract with Babylon early and taking 8 weeks out of full time work
  • I’ve also started working as a contractor, as opposed to a permanent employee, which brings its own changes: another post for another time
  • I moved from a very large organisation (government) to a much smaller one (Babylon) and back again (BT)
  • I’ve moved from the civil service to the private sector

I can’t promise that the conclusions I’ve drawn here aren’t affected by these other factors: in fact I can pretty much guarantee that they are. Keep that in mind as you read this article.

Why I moved into product management

I’m a passionate and experienced wordsmith. I’ve been a content designer / writer / editor for most of my career. So moving into product management was, in some respects, a bit of a curveball.

While working on the GOV.UK Design System, I found I was increasingly interested (and interfering—sorry about that, Tim) in the product management aspects of my team’s work.

I was interested and opinionated about the product strategy, thinking beyond the scope of my role as a content designer, and considering the direction of the product as a whole. A few people, including my old product and delivery managers, told me they thought I’d make a good product manager—that my strategic thinking and strong communication skills would stand me in good stead.

And despite the fact that it was an obvious next step, I just wasn’t drawn to the idea of progressing into a more senior content role. When it comes to content, my happy-zone is doing, not decision-making. If I was going to become a decision-maker, I wanted to have influence over a whole product or service, rather than a discipline.

So I decided to do something about the growing curiosity I had, and try my hand at product management.

How I prepared for the move

Once I decided to take the plunge, I took some steps to prepare for my transition.

Limiting the amount of change

I decided I would try to offset the impact of the move by sticking with an area I knew well: design systems. I thought I’d have a better chance of changing my discipline if I understood the type of product well. I started looking for product manager roles on design system teams, and after a bit of time searching, I landed one at Babylon Health.

Asking my network for advice

In the weeks leading up to my start date, I reached out to some people in my network to get some advice on the challenges ahead.

I met my then colleague Si who’s also made the transition from content designer to product manager, to find out what he’d learned and what advice he had. He provided me with a very comprehensive reading list which I’m still working my way through now.

I met with my former product manager Alice, who shared tips on getting up to speed as quickly as possible.

“As soon as you get in there, find out what’s been promised” was a piece of advice she gave me which proved as useful when I joined Babylon as it did when I joined BT a few weeks ago.

I also met with Lily who was managing the design system at Lloyds Banking Group at the time. She shared some important advice on staying focused and not burning out. I didn’t appreciate at the time how much I’d need to remind myself of that in the months that followed.

Deciding on some ground rules

I know I tend to hold myself to unrealistic standards, and that that would quickly land me in trouble if I wasn’t careful.

So going in I made myself a list of ground rules to follow to avoid getting overloaded, and to focus my energy in the right places. They were:

  • stick to my working hours
  • spend the last 10 minutes of everyday listing outstanding tasks or thoughts to pick up tomorrow
  • keep work apps off my phone, or at the very least, switch off notifications
  • be relentlessly honest about what I know and don’t know, what I can commit to and what my team can commit to

I also set myself a very strong intention not to interfere with content, despite the temptation I knew would be there. The team I was joining had a content designer—a great one at that—and I wanted to make sure she had space and autonomy to do her role. I was joining as a product manager, and I was firm about staying in my lane.

What’s been good

Whatever the future has in store, I’m really happy I made the move.

After 8 or 9 years working as a content specialist, I needed a shake-up, and moving into product management has given me that.

I’m glad I considered how to limit the amount of change as product management has been a big learning curve, and if I wasn’t working with a familiar subject I think I’d be struggling to keep up.

I also think it impacts how people perceive me. I’m new to product management, but I’m an expert when it comes to design systems. This affords me a certain amount of trust and respect, and helps me to speak confidently about my work.

I’ve realised that content design has given me a lot of transferable skills to prepare me for product management. Here are some of the ones I’m most grateful for.

  1. Communication - being able to clearly explain what we’re doing, why and how—in simple terms—has been a huge advantage for the amount of presenting and reporting I have to do. Lots of people have complimented me on the clarity of my presentations and written communication.

  2. Showing value - content design is still seriously undervalued as a discipline, compared with others. As frustrating as that’s been at times, it means you get good at persuading people that what you’re doing is worthwhile, and this is a very important part of product management.

  3. Negotiation - anyone who’s had to work with a legal team to produce an advice guide for an audience of not-lawyers will come to know a thing or 2 about negotiation. Since so much of product management is trying to find compromises between user needs and business goals, being able to negotiate effectively with the team and with stakeholders is a real asset.

And finally, I’m learning a LOT. I think I probably gained more knowledge and new skills in my first 3 months of product management than I did in my last 18 months of content design.

I’ve got a much more balanced understanding of the different disciplines that make up a product team.

I’m learning how to lead, how to admit when I don’t have the answer to a problem, whilst creating confidence that we’ll find it.

And I’m learning practical skills as and when the job demands them, like how to use new tools for reporting and roadmapping, how to put together a business case, or how to set up a sprint plan and review it at the end.

What’s been hard

I’ve had to become much more commercially-minded and business savvy, and fast.

I’m used to speaking in the language of user needs and design hypotheses. Now, as well as those things, I have to talk about operational efficiency and channel share and OKRs (objectives and key results, if you’re asking). I’m having to tell the same story in different ways to make sure it resonates with audiences I’m not used to dealing with. It’s satisfying when it goes well, but it’s tough.

I’ve realised that the bit of product management you see from a product team is the tip of the iceberg. Going in, I expected most of my time to be spent with the team, guiding the product strategy and prioritisation, stepping out from time to time to provide updates to stakeholders. In reality, only about a quarter of my time is spent with the team. The rest of it I spend meeting with other teams and people to gather requirements, report on our work or ask for support.

I’m not only busier now than I’ve ever been, I’m also context-switching more than I ever have, being pulled in many different directions by a group of people that extends far beyond my team.

I occupy the space between the team, the users and our stakeholders, and no one else shares that vantage point with me. This makes it really interesting, but also lonely, at times. Trying to find acceptable compromises is challenging when people are mostly thinking about their own piece of the puzzle, and not the big picture you see.

As a product manager, any bad news for the team comes to you first. When bad news comes, trying to balance honesty against protecting team-morale is tough. On days like that I miss being purely part of the product team, and feel retrospectively grateful to my previous product managers for shielding us from this, so we could get on and do the work.

What’s next

I often joke that I’m a content designer pretending to be a product manager. My skills and experience are very much rooted in content design, and I think that’s part of what makes me a good product manager.

I may go back to content design one day, or I may switch between the 2. If I do, I’m confident that product management has already given me new knowledge and skills that will make me a better content designer.

For now, I’m excited to continue as a product manager and to see what lessons the next 6 months have in store.

Useful resources

Here are some of the resources I’ve found helpful while transitioning to product management: